Monday, February 23, 2015

Yecapixtla: The Convento and its Murals

For our final post on Yecapixtla we consider the extensive convento or friars' quarters of the priory.
The Convento 
As with many Mexican monasteries, the convento is located on the sunnier south side of the church.
   In contrast to the opulent sculptural detail of the church, the architecture of the convento is plain. Above the austere arcade of the monastery entrance, or portería, the outline of a bricked-up archway overhead may indicate the location of a former open chapel.    
Although the arched convento entry inside the porteria is also sober, some refinement is reflected in the framing colonettes and surmounting Gothic finials. 
A less subtle touch is evinced by the Calvary cross or tree cross relief above the doorway. “Pruned" stubs project along its arms and shaft and a startlingly realistic skull grins from the base.
The Murals 
One of the glories of Yecapixtla is its extensive gallery of 16th century murals inside the convento which ameliorate the severity of the architecture. 
   The sala de profundis * just inside the entrance is the jewel in the crown. Recently restored painted arcades along the side walls frame portraits of Augustinian martyrs, outlined in black and highlighted with earthy reds and ochers. 
The piece de resistance is the spectacular Resurrection scene on the end wall. Based on a medieval print or wood-cut, the risen Christ raises the cross in triumph above the overlapping haloes of a throng of saints, apostles and other notables. 

Like the portería, the single-story cloister is surprisingly plain for an Augustinian house, its stark, whitewashed arcades free of architectural ornament. 
By contrast, the cloister walks are ablaze with color. Although often fragmentary, heavily restored portraits of saints, martyrs and founders of the early church look out from the arcade piers, many with scrolled name plaques. 
© Ramón Moreno Rodríguez
We can pick out the youthful St. Francis, St Peter of Verona and the magisterial figure of Pope Gregory in his papal finery and triple tiara. 
Red, blue and beige coffered artesonado patterns cover the barrel vaults, and lively grotesque friezes studded with medallions line the corridors. 
Traces of a mural cycle depicting Christ's Passion cling to the corner bays. Ongoing restoration of the murals are leading to new discoveries.
   Beyond the cloister, Isabelline portals lead to other rooms, including the sacristy, the Sagrario Chapel and the colonial monastery school. 
* Traditionally a funerary chapel memorializing deceased members of the Order, so named from the opening words of the penitential Psalm 130, "de profundis clamavi ad te, Domine", in New World monasteries it also served as a chapter room and ante refectory.
The Resurrection mural before restoration (1990)

text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.  color images by Niccolò Brooker except where noted.
for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Yecapixtla: Inside the Church

" One of the most beautiful temples of this realm. Fashioned with such rare skill that the windows, the ribs of the vault, the pulpit and even the choir rail are all finely chiseled in stone in the same manner"
anonymous 18th century chronicler

Inside the Church *
Despite a facelift in the last century, when its gilded Baroque retablos were consigned to the flames and replaced by neoclassical altars, the interior retains much of its colonial grandeur. 
Rib vault above the crossing
The refined skills of the stone carvers displayed on the church exterior continue inside the church. Much of the original stonework is still intact—the flowing tracery of the painted vaults, and the sturdy ribs and bosses of the wheel vault under the choir. A rare pierced stone parapet atop the choir is also unique, surmounted by spiky fleurs-de-lis and candelabra pinnacles. 
under choir wheel vault (Wikimedia-Ivan)
Among the most accomplished works of sculpture in the church is the sumptuous Isabelline pulpit, delicately carved with Augustinian insignia like the facade—in our view the finest sculpted stone pulpit in Mexico. 
Its ogee arches and Gothic finials suggest the hand of a Spanish craftsman, as does the handsome processional doorway into the cloister—one of several similar portals in the church: four doorways on the south side of the nave open to the Sacristy, the Sagrario chapel, the Baptistry and the Convento.) 
By contrast, the primitive font is fringed by eroded lions and angels. Originally an outdoor fountain, it was pressed into service during the mass baptisms of the Spiritual Conquest and continues to fulfill the same role more than 450 years later. 
Carved doorway to bell tower with grotesque frieze
Traces of monochrome figures and friezes emerging from behind the 19th century overpainting along the nave hint at 16th century murals still awaiting recovery. 

* 2017 update: Following the 9.19 Mexico earthquake, strongly felt in Moreloscracks opened in the painted vaulting, which during the heavy rains that followed, threatened both the structure and damaged the murals.
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.
color pictures by the author and courtesy of Niccolo Brooker, Felipe Falcón and others.
for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Yecapixtla. The Church exterior

During the late 1530s, the great priory church rose rapidly under the supervision of the prior Fray Jorge de Avila. Construction continued through the 1540s and 1550s and by 1580 the priory was finished. Yecapixtla was a famous landmark even in colonial times. Tall flared buttresses, capped with castellated garitas (sentry boxes), anchor the monumental west front. 
the battlemented garita atop the facade
Martial merlons march across the crowning gable and parapets of the church, along the monastery front and atrium walls and, as noted, mark the corners of the posa chapels. 
posa chapel (N. Brooker)
Despite its massive scale and rugged profile, Yecapixtla boasts outstanding and refined stone working throughout.
The West Front
The facade features one of the most refined Plateresque style porches in Mexico. Its pure Renaissance outline is spiced with Gothic elements; narrow paired colonettes frame the grand arched doorway enclosing slender niches, now empty, supported on grutesco style floral reliefs.  
"grotesque" relief
Medallions of cherubs' heads entwine with rosettes, lilies and acanthus leaves on the door jambs and around the archway. Winged angels pose in the spandrels and high-spirited putti ride on fantastical dragons along the frieze. 
cherub riding a triton
Cameos of a friar and a bewigged Spanish hidalgo are embossed on the column pedestals and alternate with rosettes on the door jambs. 
Another empty niche in the attic above is flanked by the Augustinian insignia of the pierced heart with a tasseled galero hat on one side, and the bleeding Five Wounds of Christ on the other. 
   Above the doorway an expressive stone crucifix is inset at the apex of the crowning pediment. 
© Felipe Falcón
Above the porch, the rose window is among the most spectacular examples of its kind in Mexico. It seems almost to float above the porch, its sinuous flamboyant tracery rivaled in richness by the complex scrolls and ribbons of its layered, circular frame.
On the north side of the church, the cliff like, battlemented nave wall is pierced by Gothic style windows and another elegant entry.   
Like the west entry, this finely crafted Plateresque doorway is flanked by slender "cushioned" colonettes. Carved relief panels like those of the west porch adorn the jambs, while floral medallions alternate with Augustinian hearts around the archway.
   Medallions with portrait busts of a man and a woman occupy the spandrels—possibly Cortés and his wife? 
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.  
color images by the author and courtesy of Niccolo Brooker and Felipe Falcón.
for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book

Friday, February 6, 2015

Yecapixtla. The Priory of San Juan Bautista

For our first post on Yecapixtla, its arts and architecture, we take an overall view of the priory, its history and environs.

Shining Nose 
Strategically placed on a fortified bluff between two deep gorges, this proud city doggedly resisted assimilation by the powerful Aztec empire. The aristocratic lords of Yecapixtla wore the jade noseplugs traditionally reserved for kings—a privilege proudly commemorated in the town's place name.
   So when the Spaniards arrived in the spring of 1521, the independent townspeople put up a fierce struggle before finally succumbing to the superior numbers and weaponry of the invaders and their Tlaxcalan allies. The river reportedly ran red with blood.
   Despite this fearful encounter, Yecapixtla retained its preeminence into colonial times and was chosen by the conquistador Cortés as one of the four regional villas of the Marquesado, his far flung estates. 
   Although Franciscans from Cuernavaca first evangelized Yecapixtla and erected a primitive adobe-and-thatch mission here, it was the Augustinians who took over and built the magnificent stone fortress priory of San Juan Bautista that stands here today—the flagship of their chain of monasteries in the region.
   From the church roof, ringed by battlements, a vast golden plain patched with green stretches away to the southwest, fading into an ash blue haze of smoking corn and sugar-cane fields. The purple wall of the Tepozteco range rises to the north, and to the east looms the snow-capped cone of the volcano Popocatépetl. 
The Atrium
The priory is fronted by a large, L-shaped atrium enclosed by formidable stone walls bristling with spiky merlons. Battlemented posa chapels anchor each corner.
© Ismael Rangel Gomez
The atrium cross - reverse side
The Atrium Cross
Yecapixtla also boasts a conspicuous carved stone cross. Like those at nearby Cuernavaca and Temimilcingo, it stands conspicuously atop a high stone base with corner merlons, set directly in the path to the church door. 
   Although considerably eroded, the front of the cross is delicately carved with Passion symbols, notably angled spikes on the arms and shaft—a regional pattern. 
   A Chalice appears at the top of the shaft from where an emerging Host occupies the axis of the cross, in the form of a flower or sunburst. A thin band extends up from the chalice through the center of the Host, terminating in a tiny cross, above which floats an oval, cordlike Crown of Thorns motif.
   Another Chalice and Host appear on the base of the cross.
The atrium cross - front (detail) 
The back of cross is plain, although there is an unusually realistic Augustinian heart with a protruding aorta carved on the pedestal (see reverse image above). 
text and graphics © Richard D. Perry  
color images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker except where noted.

for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book

Monday, February 2, 2015

Yecapixtla: Introduction

In our 1992 guidebook, Mexico's Fortress Monasteries, we described a group of major 16th century monasteries in central Mexico and Oaxaca.  Our entries were illustrated with line drawings which could not do full justice to the variety of architectural, artistic and especially the colorful aspects of these monuments.
   In our new series we revisit many of these early colonial  complexes, updating the information and adding color images, some recently taken and others chosen from our newly scanned slide archive.

Many years ago, back in the 1960s, we stopped by the imposing Augustinian priory of Yecapixtla to take some exterior pictures, one of which I used as a basis for a rather impressionistic painting and collage.  
   Later, in the mid 1980s, we paid a longer visit and had the privilege of meeting Santiago Aguilar, the 82 year-old sacristan of the church and a veteran of the Mexican Revolution.  As we recounted in our guidebook Mexico’s Fortress Monasteries:

After ascending the 94 narrow stone steps of the dark spiral stairway, we emerged giddy and breathless into the midday glare atop the church roof. Santiago,showing no ill effects from the climb, stepped into the garita perched precipitously at the apex of the facade and gestured towards the sweep-ing panorama. 
“When the Federales came in 1914," Santiago reminisced as he gazed into the distance, "I was only nine. Most of the villagers left during the Revolution, but I stayed and hid. I saw it all." 
He turned and pointed to the battlemented walkways beside the roof parapets. "Cannon and machine guns were hauled up here to defend the town.  Ah, the noise, the bloodshed, the destruction. How we all suffered!..."
Santiago beckoned us to the rear of the roof, pointing to an ancient timepiece hung in a small belfry, " This is the only thing that escaped damage in the Revolution. A wonderful old clock. German. Installed in the time of Don Porfirio and still keeping good time today." 
Santiago Aguilar in 1985
In the next several posts we hope to relive as well as add to our impressions of this magnificent 16th century Augustinian priory, starting with the exterior.
text and images © 2015 Richard D. Perry

for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book